In Japan, the months of April and May are quite busy in celebrations. Within the Aikido world, there are also a few events that are worth noting such as the anniversary of the founder's passing on April 26th 1969, the Aiki Shrine Festival and the 29th of April and the massive annual All Japan Aikido Demonstration on May 22nd.
The first event of this series of commemorations is the Shinonukai. It is a special evening that takes place at the Aikido World Headquarters in Tokyo on the exact date of the founder Morihei Ueshiba's passing (April 26th 1969).
Every year, several archive videos featuring O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba and his son the second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba are played on a big screen in the main dojo at the third floor. Although this footage has been around for a while, it is always a pleasure to watch it for its historical and inspirational values. For the occasion, a few people who have personally known the founder are invited to give speeches after the projection. Finally, sake and rice crackers are offered by the Aikikai to the people present. It is a very nice occasion to get together in the dojo and to talk to fellow students and teachers.
Enjoying sake and crackers between friends Aiki-Jinja Taisai
The second memorial event occurs on the 29th of April at the Aikido shrine in Iwama, the Aiki Jinja Tai Sai Festival. The Aiki Jinja is a Shinto shrine built by Morihei Ueshiba himself in the aim of receiving the "spirit of Aikido".
It takes about 1h40 by train to get to Iwama from Shinjuku station. As we head towards the sanctuary after a pleasant quarter of an hour walk from the station, our eyes meet a large stone carved with the four Ai-ki Jin-ja kanji placed in front of a large Tori (gate) which symbolizes the entry on a sacred Shinto ground. The shrine itself is a small wooden building composed of two parts, the honden which will host the religious ceremony and the Dohsu's demonstration, and the okuden, the more sacred, less accessible area behind the honden.
The Iwama Dojo
The religious ceremony starts at 11 am sharp with some prayers and an introversion in honour of the founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba. Several personalities are attending the event including the president of the national Japanese Aikido Association, the current leader of the Omoto Kyo sect and Hiroshi Tada Sensei., the highest ranked Aikikai Honbu Dojo instructor The demonstration of the Doshu takes place just after the prayers. This year, Moriteru Ueshiba was injured and therefore, his son Mitsuteru took his place for the suwari waza partat the beginning of the demonstration. This was his very first demonstration in the sanctuary.
The interior of the Iwama Dojo
Nearby the sanctuary is located the famous Iwama dojo where O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba developed and perfected his craft. The Dojo is absolutely magnificent, entirely built in wood in the traditional manner. One can't help but feel very emotional on the first visit at this historic place for Aikido. One of the best feature is the splendid wooden Kamiza, very different to the one of the Tokyo Honbu Dojo. One can even see the wooden weapons used by O Sensei himself before his passing away.
The Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba
After the demonstration, we setup lunch nearby the Dojo. It consists of a bento and a glass of nihonshu kindly offered by the Aikikai. This picnic is yet another privileged moment of communication and acquaintance with other practitioners. Groups naturally form, sometimes around a Sensei, sometimes between friends, or sometimes with perfect strangers coming from abroad. These social events are really important for the practitioners in order to bound, especially given the great diversity and the sheer number of students practicing or travelling to Japan in a year.
Dai 48 Kai Zen Nihon Aikido Enbu Taikai
48th All Japan Aikido Demonstration
The annual All Japan Aikido Demonstration took place like every year at the legendary Nihon Budokan (). All the afternoon, a succession of demonstrations were of course performed by many prestigious Sensei, but also, by members of smaller dojo including university clubs, private groups, corporation dojos etc. Thus, the whole Japanese territory was represented. This year was very special for me because it was my first visit at the Budokan. Each time I had been in Japan, I had had to leave shortly before the All Japan Aikido demonstration and I therefore never had the chance to see it, let alone take part in it.
The Budokan was originally built for 1964 Summer Olympics judo competitions. It is located in Kitanomaru Park near the Imperial Palace and Yasukuni Shrine. The Nihon Budokan can accomodate 14,201 spectators and it is modelled after Yumedono (Hall of Dreams) in Hry-ji in Nara. Apart from hosting the most prestigious martial art events in Japan it is also very famous for being the veniue for many rock concerts with artists like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and many more haviung played and often recorded within these walls. I am especially excited because of the fact that I will not only witness this prestigious event, but I will also have the opportunity to set foot on this legendary tatami during the Aikikai Hombu Dojo general demonstration that takes place at the end of the day.
The entrance of the Nihon Budokan
As I get off the station, I see numbers of people carrying sports bags, all are walking towards the entrance of Kitanomaru Park. After passing through the massive wooden doors, I find myself facing the imposing 42 m high, octagonal structure displaying a large banner with the name of the current event. Many people are here already and as I walk, I am greeted by many familiar faces from Honbu Dojo, in particular David Frykholm and Sebastien Bertolo who are helping out with the organisation. A bit further down, Miyamoto Shihan, wearing suit and earpiece waves at me despite looking very busy. I am surprised to see that most of the top Aikikai Honbu Dojo Shihan here are actually helping with the organisation of the event. Later on, I will even witness a last minute tatami repair performed by Kuribayashi, Miyamoto and Sasaki Shihan assisted by two uchi deshi.
Aikikai Sensei repairing the tatami
Each demonstration usually lasts for exactly 3 min except for the ones from current Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba and Hiroshi Tada Shihan, the highest ranked Aikikai Honbu Dojo instructor. Each demonstration begins and ends with a hit on the massive Taiko drum located at one corner of the hall. The dojo consists of 5 large 121 sqm tatami and therefore, 5 demonstrations are actually taking place at one time, which is a good thing considering the great number of practitioners that are going to step on the mat during the afternoon. Some groups from abroad are regularly invited to perform at the All Japan Aikido Demonstration and this year sees delegations from France (FFAB under the direction of Jacques Bonnemaison), Singapore, Holland and Sweden (under the direction of Urban Aldenklint) displaying their skills.
The Budokan during the Japanese national hymn
I am met at the door by Budo Export
's Jordy Delage and his lovely wife Eriko. As we enter, we rush through the building in order to find a good spot as they want to record on camera most of the event. Eriko and Jordy are the ones to thank for the fantastic videos displayed in this article. As we sit down, I am greeted by Sébastien Heurteau who is sitting nearby. Sébastien has spent a great deal of time training in Vincennes under Christian Tissier Shihan and he has been living in Japan for over seven years, training daily at the Honbu Dojo. Later on today, I will have the chance to appreciate his impressive ukemi skills as he steps on the tatami as uke for Kobayashi Yukimitsu Shihan.
Yukimitsu Kobayashi Shihan with Sébastien Heurteau
The event starts with the Japanese national anthem "Kimi Ga Yo" (which has the intrinsic quality to be the world's shortest national anthem) and a discourse by several officials sitting at the special guess tables in front of the tatami. Finally, the event is launched and the first set of demonstrations kicks off. All sensibilities of Aikikai Aikido are represented as well as all levels of practice. I really enjoy watching the little kids displaying their skills. Most of them are so excited that they get carried away in spite of their parent's/instructor's instructions, there are really some good moments there. This event really emphasises the fact that the Aikikai is more like a great family than a political or technical direction. I really like this sort of reunions because even though we are all very different and our practice diverge in many ways, we all feel like we are part of the same lineage, however how divergent it becomes with time. I am of course really looking forward to see the demonstrations of the Honbu Dojo teachers as usual, they don't disappoint and every one of them displays their particular sensitivity.
Endo Seishiro Shihan
The time of the Aikikai Honbu Dojo general demonstration is approaching and excitement starts to build up amongst us. Miguel, Paco, Jordy and I head downstairs in the changing rooms and we can see all our friends from Honbu getting ready. It is quite chaotic there but the atmosphere is fantastic. Once again, these moments really make me feel the Honbu Dojo's family-like aspects. Everybody greets each other, chats and even crack a few jokes. Then, Yokota Shihan, the maestro in charge this year, starts giving his instructions on the proceedings to follow. We have three minutes, he will show a series of moves on the central tatami and we will all practice them in sequence and change technique upon his call (actually, more like a yell really!).
The All Japan Embukai highlights
A bit like on a prom night, most of us have previously paired up in prevision of the demonstration but there are still a few last minute arrangements made downstairs minutes before the start. The time has now come to enter the arena and I am glad to see that my buddy Rionne McAvoy from Sceptre Films
is here as well as D.J. Lortie with whom I practice Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu every now and then. It is a very impressive feeling to enter such a huge place surrounded by so many people. One could think that the presence of so many Shihan could be intimidating but as regular practitioners from the Honbu Dojo, we are quite used to see these teachers watch our every moves and therefore, the pressure as high as I expected. Besides, the great number of practitioners on the tatami makes it easier too. Of course, one might argue that there is little glory, or even point in practicing amongst so many people. However, thinking that the people who are down there take part in the demonstration out of ego would be very mistaken. No, the people down there, regardless of their ranks or experience are there to pay tribute to their home dojo. More importantly than the demonstration itself, it is just great fun to be there amongst fellow students with whom we usually spend so many hours training diligently every week. After a demonstration that feels like just a few seconds, we head back upstairs in order to watch the final demonstrations by Seishiro Endo Shihan, Hiroshi Tada Shihan and finally, the third Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba.
Honbu Dojo members at the end of the general demonstration
More than the time on the tatami or the succession of demonstrations, it was fantastic to be part in such a significant event as the All Japan Aikido Demonstration. Like in all extended families, it does not matter what rank you have or which status you hold, the most important thing is to be there amongst your peers. Whether it is on the tatami or in the audience, all share the same love and commitment for the discipline that was created by Morihei Ueshiba.
Photos and videos by Jordy Delage, Eriko Hoshi and Megumi Fukuda
(Original blog post may be found here